The Campbeltown Boom and Bust

If you’ve ever visited Dufftown in Speyside, chances are a local will have proudly told you that “Rome was built on seven hills, but Dufftown stands on seven stills”. And while a cluster of seven distilleries in a village of 1600 people is indeed impressive, there was once a time when Dufftown’s claim to be the whisky capital of the world would have been brushed aside without a second thought.

Nowadays, few whisky fans make the long drive down the Kintyre peninsula. In fact, many are even unaware that Campbeltown is a whisky region in its own right. And this is perhaps not surprising, given that there are now only three distilleries operational. How different this once was. In its heyday, Campbeltown was the undisputed Whisky Metropolis (to use Alfred Barnard’s words), boasting no less than 26 distilleries. Coming in by sea through the Campbeltown Loch, the sight of all those chimneys belching out smoke must have been quite something to behold. The town, never housing more than a few thousand inhabitants, was a bustle of whisky making activity, buildings blackened with soot and the smell of peat reek permeating everything. So successful were Campbeltown’s whisky barons in attracting the business of large Lowland blenders such as Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s, that by the 1890s, Campbeltown boasted the highest per capita income anywhere in Britain. And not only the local economy was thriving. Converted into today’s money, every inhabitant was contributing the equivalent of £30.000 a year to the Treasury in excise duty. Clearly, Campbeltown distillers were getting things very right. The sky was the limit and one could not imagine a Scotch whisky industry without Campbeltown at its forefront. But fast-forward 30 years and Campbeltown paints a much bleaker, more desolate picture, one of financial struggle, distillery closures and rampant unemployment. At its very lowest point, only Springbank distillery remained open, and even they ceased production for a few seasons. How did Campbeltown’s fortunes reverse so dramatically? What were the factors that brought down this mighty force in whisky making? And what might the future hold for this proud town that once lived and breathed whisky? This is a story of impossible highs, heart-wrenching lows and glimmers of hope on the horizon. This is the story of the Campbeltown boom and bust.

Campbeltown

The many chimneys of Campbeltown

Like any good tale about whisky should, Campbeltown’s story starts off with Irish monks, illicit distillers and nosy excisemen. It has been fairly well established that Ireland is where the distilling of whisky first took place. Considering that the Kintyre peninsula is just 12 miles away from the Irish coast of Antrim, and that Saint Columba is known to have spent three years in Campbeltown before moving to Iona, it is not wholly unlikely that Campbeltown is in fact the true cradle of Scottish whisky making. Alas, we will never know, but it can be said with certainty that distilling took place on the Kintyre peninsula as early as the 16th century. There are few records from this time, but if we fast-forward two centuries, it is clear that distilling had become part and parcel of life. Water, barley and peat were all available in abundance, but what really made Campbeltown an ideal location was its natural harbour and proximity to Glasgow. During the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow was referred to as the ‘Second City of the Empire’ and numerous ships made a stop at Campbeltown, eager to pick up some whisky along the way.

Not that any legal businesses had sprung up; the tax regime was far too onerous for this. As a result, between 1797-1999, no less than 292 illicit stills were confiscated by excisemen. Although Campbeltown Distillery was the first to take out a legal license in 1817, others did not follow suit until after the Excise Act significantly lowered taxes in 1823. Over the next 5 years, 15 new legal distilleries sprang up. While this should have been enough, distillers, blenders and investors all chased ever-increasing profits, and a further 13 distilleries were built between 1830 and 1835. At this point, competition was fierce, resources were stretched and it was clear that the first casualties would soon fall. Indeed, no new distilleries were built for almost a decade, and several smaller, less financially viable distilleries were forced to close up shop. Even so, the whisky industry as a whole remained in relatively good shape, with economic stagnation and increasing church opposition to alcohol the only clouds on the horizon. In response, many distillery owners put their wealth to building churches, which much mellowed the church’s attitude to this ‘devil’s drink’. In fact, on his tour of Campbeltown, Alfred Barnard remarked that “there are nearly as many places of worship as distilleries in town”. It was a fine example of what we would now call corporate social responsibility.

Temperance Poster

Alcohol was not always so popular with the church and the government…

Another few distilleries closed just as Glen Nevis and Ardlussa opened its doors. At the turn of the 20th century, the number of distilleries had levelled off to around 20. This was a time of unprecedented growth in the whisky industry, in no small part due to the Phylloxera epidemic that had ravaged the vineyards in France. Campbeltown distillers ramped up production significantly in the face of ever-increasing demand from the blending houses. So large was Campbeltown’s production that the Kintyre farmland was stripped bare, and barley was shipped in from as far away as Denmark and Russia. Everything indicated that Campbeltown had a golden future ahead of it and money continued to pour in achieve ever higher output. Annual production was around the 10 million litre mark, a staggering amount for that time. Speculation was rife, as investors bought up huge quantities of whisky for future resale, thereby further fuelling overproduction. Distillers naively assumed that demand would always be there, leading to a sense of complacency. During this Golden Age of Whisky, not a lot of investments were made in hardware or upkeep, which would negatively affect the quality of the whisky later on. Although no one realised it, the Scotch whisky industry was a bubble ready to burst, with Campbeltown at its very forefront. When the bubble did burst, it did so in spectacular fashion, bringing giants crashing down and almost decimating the whisky industry altogether. The landscape of Scotch whisky production would never be the same, as Campbeltown distillers would soon find out.

The trouble started when Pattison’s of Leith – a major blending company – defaulted on its loans, dragging 10 other firms down with it into bankruptcy. Suddenly, investors became shaky, confidence was gone and loans could no longer be repaid. Years of overproduction left distillers with huge quantities of stock, for which demand simply did not exist (and in truth hadn’t existed even before the bubble burst). The price of whisky fell dramatically, tumbling to half its previous value within a matter of years. Due to its huge stocks, Campbeltown whisky was even harder hit. Where spirit sold from Hazelburn to blending houses was valued at 8 shilling per gallon, distilleries such as Craigellachie and Ardbeg were able to command up to 18 shillings.

In the decades that followed, external factors were also at play, brewing up a perfect storm of adverse conditions that almost toppled the whisky industry. The First World War depressed the internal market and saw curbs on the availability of grain. In Campbeltown, not a single distillery was active during the War, and many distillers simply gave up and relocated to London or Glasgow. Around the same time, the Temperance movement gained traction under the leadership of David Lloyd George. While there had always been a somewhat adversarial relationship between alcohol and the government, Lloyd George now claimed that alcohol was more damaging “than all the German submarines put together. We are at war with Austria, Germany and drink; and as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink”. As a result, the tax on alcohol production was increased sixfold, further dampening consumption in the light of higher prices. In the United States, as similar sentiment had taken hold, and Prohibition officially came into force in 1920, removing an important export market for Scottish distillers. To top it all off, the stock market crash of 1929 heralded in the Great Depression, a time of poverty and hardship for many. In Glasgow, unemployment reached 30%, and people had far more pressing items on their shopping lists than whisky.

In the face of all this adversity, you can hardly blame the Campbeltown distillers for cutting some corners and trying to reduce costs. Rumours of whisky being aged in barrels that previously held herring were never proven, and it seems likely that the phrase “stinking fish” was simply a derogatory term introduced by Speyside distillers who were in direct competition with their Campbeltown counterparts. Either way, it is undeniably true that some poor quality spirit was being aged in very substandard casks, putting a big dent in Campbeltown’s previously sterling reputation for quality whisky. As a result, most blending houses began sourcing their whisky in the Speyside. This was a trend that had been ongoing for some time, to the detriment of Campbeltown distillers. In order to accommodate the more delicate tastes of the English upper classes, the softer, sweeter Speyside style was much in fashion with blenders. Campbeltown whiskies had traditionally been heavily peated, but now distillers started using coal fuelled fires to dry their barley, resulting in the lighter style of Campbeltown whisky that we know today. Alas, it was not enough to stem the tide. With Speyside now more accessible due to the Strathspey Railway, Campbeltown lost many of the transport advantages that had fuelled its initial growth.

The results for Campbeltown were outright disastrous, as distilleries closed in rapid succession. Most were able to stay afloat for a few years simply by selling their stock, but very little distillation took place during these years. The following overview of closures pretty much tells the whole story.

Campbeltown Distillery Closures Timeline

The closures of distilleries came thick and fast after 1920. Each red flag indicates a distillery closing its doors and never reopening.

By 1935, only Springbank and Scotia distillery remained, and neither of them had produced whisky during the previous 5 years. This took a serious toll on the local population. The distilleries used to employ numerous locals, with many more working in supporting jobs such as carting, coopering, bottling, or even growing barley. Unemployment was rampant and these were certainly hard times for the Campbeltonians, who had worked in the whisky trade for generations. Many left for Glasgow in search of new opportunities. Abandoned distilleries were knocked down and converted into housing projects, garages, or even just a parking lot. In 1930, it all became a bit too much for Duncan Maccallum, then owner of the Scotia distillery. After a business deal reportedly went very wrong, he committed suicide by drowning himself in Campbeltown Loch. His ghost is said to haunt the distillery, although this is of course not actively marketed by Glen Scotia.

Further periods of inactivity notwithstanding, Springbank and Glen Scotia continued to make quality malts. Yet around the turn of the millennium they were in for some bad news. The Scotch Whisky Association was deciding to scrap Campbeltown’s status as a whisky region, owing to the fact that there were only two distilleries operational. It seemed that despite its proud heritage and long tradition of whisky making, Campbeltown would be demoted to just another town that happened to boast a distillery or two. This was too bitter a pill to swallow for Hedley Wright, owner of the Springbank distillery and descendent of its original founder. He decided to buy up the dysfunctional Glengyle distillery and breathe new life into it. This put the number of distilleries in Campbeltown at three, on par with the Lowland region. The Scotch Whisky Association agreed that Campbeltown deserved the same recognition, and the town’s future as a distinct whisky region was secure once more.

Campbeltown Distilleries Timeline

Each green flag indicates a new distillery being opened, whereas a red flag depicts a distillery that closed its doors forever. The periods of boom and bust are clear: a flurry of new distilleries after 1823, and a huge amount of closures after 1920.

By 2004, the new Glengyle distillery became operational, and now produces whisky marketed under the name Kilkerran. With Springbank also producing three different styles of whisky (unpeated Hazelburn, medium peated Springbank and heavily peated Longrow), Campbeltown distilling is seeing a bit of a resurgence. Malt whisky enjoys an enormous popularity at the moment, and many whisky fans are rediscovering Campbeltown. And with distilleries springing up like mushrooms everywhere, who knows if Campbeltown can further expand its portfolio. Times will never be like they were, but perhaps that’s for the best. With branding more important than ever, the uniqueness of Campbeltown whiskies certainly helps to boost sales. Without a doubt though, Campbeltown has had a major impact on the development and popularity of Scotch whisky. Now a useful reminder of the dangers of boundless optimism, Campbeltown has weathered more than its fair share of bad fortune. It is a testament to the sheer perseverance of the current distillers (as well as the quality of their whiskies) that Campbeltown drams continue to be enjoyed the world over. And that’s a good thing, because a place with the heritage and pedigree of Campbeltown should not disappear from the whisky regions map. So here’s to both the turbulent past and the future of Scotland’s most historic whisky town: slàinte!

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